Honfleur, summer escape for overheated Parisians, playground for wealthy Russians and Belgians, ferry adventure for the Brits and perfect pit stop in Normandy for the weary traveller.
A maritime delight, perfectly positioned at the mouth of the mighty Seine, Honfleur has enchanted generations with her beautiful harbour, playful shifting light, and seafaring history.
An easy two hour drive west of Paris, or maybe a ferry trip across the ditch from Portsmouth to Le Havre, then over the spectacular Pont de Normandie (the sixth largest cable-stayed bridge in the world), Honfleur is comfortably within reach.
We travelled up from Bayeux and the D-Day beaches, entered from the south, meandering down the hill into the village, stopping only to park our car at our B&B, before walking down to the old town.
Centred on the 17th century Le Vieux Bassin, the charming old dock at the heart of the town, four and five storey wood or slate fronted buildings, then smaller stone buildings encroach on the cobblestone lanes that surrounds the harbour, restaurants around the edges overflowing to the waters edge.
A beloved playground of impressionist artists as well as seafarer adventurers of centuries past, it still feels as it must have back when Eugene Boudin mentored a young Claude Monet, long before he drifted off to Giverny and the waterlilies.
It’s the light that so enamours artists, especially around the harbour, with shades and palettes changing through the day, highlighting a slate wall here, or a wooden arch over there, a constant moving pastel feast.
In bygone days the harbour would have been filled with fishing vessels plying their trade, but now the moorings are filled with yachting splendour, most happy to rest their jibs and mainsails for weeks on end, the fishing vessels consigned to the estuary waters just outside.
The only way into the enclosed waters is through a retractable bridge, and only at high tide, which does seem to put way too much pressure on the yachties, who force themselves to another cider or Calvados to while away the days.
Normandy is apple country, so it goes without saying that apple cider is the regions speciality, along with Calvados, so its lucky that there are up to 50 stores sprinkled around the harbour region more than happy to extract you from a few euros.
The ciders come mainly in cork sealed bottles, displaying a refreshing bead, and slightly sweet palate.
Calvados on the other hand kicks like a mule, the result of the distilling process and the 40% plus alcohol!
Don’t worry beer and wine people, plenty of that on offer as well, with a vast array of bars and restaurants around the harbour, and up the cobblestoned laneways, which snake up the hill in all directions.
Honfleur is overrun with places to eat, and the better offerings are to found away from the water, even if only a few metres up the cobblestones.
You can spend a small fortune eating at the top end, or enjoy a snack at one of the waterfront bars.
We ate at a charming restaurant, L’homme de Bois, feasting on both seafood and beef, accompanied by a wonderful Santenay 1er Cru Burgundy Pinot Noir.
Thunderstorms threatened which made the night-lights of the old town even more mysterious, perfect reflections dancing off the still water; shimmering lights casting out like a well-worn rod.
Time to hotfoot it back up the hill to our B&B before the scene is ruined by the fast approaching deluge
We are staying at ‘La Maison du Parc’, a five roomed B&B about 400 metres from the harbour, housed in a beautiful three storied 18th century sea merchants brick mansion set on an acre of manicured lawns, discreetly tucked behind a high stone wall.
This would have to be the best place we have ever stayed at, words hardly do it justice.
A chilled bottle of cider upon arrival, home baked treats in your room, huge four posted beds, the most comfortable imaginable, enormous ensuite, antiques, soft furnishings, chocolates, friendly dogs, perfect hosts, and the best ever breakfasts.Our gracious hosts Annick and Paul put on the most incredible spread each morning in the communal dining room, where you get to relax with the other guests talking all things travel and experience.
Fresh fruit juice, savoury delights, outstanding bread, crepes, shot glass palate cleansing fruit coolies, croissants, homemade jams, cakes, coffee and tea, the works, absolutely stunning.
Little wonder it’s Tripadvisor’s top ranked Honfleur B&B.
With plenty of sights to see, we waddled back through town following the Seine estuary to the “beach”, which in reality is not much more than mudflats, especially at low tide.
Luckily the park surrounding it is stunning, with typical French gardening symmetry and precision, down to the waterlily filled lake and the frog song serenade.
We headed back into town and found our way to St Catherine’s Cathedral, housed on a nondescript little square surrounded by galleries and shops, just up from the harbour.St Catherine’s is the oldest wooden structured church in France, with a fabulous ramshackled Belfry, lovely dappled light streaming through the stained glass surrounds, with nods to the seafaring past everywhere.
Just around the corner in an old 19th century chapel is housed the Boudin Museum, both a tribute to the artist Eugene Boudin, and a potted history on canvas of the notable figures of the Honfleur school of impressionists.
For a more modern take on the artists skill there are numerous galleries scattered around displaying canvases of varying levels of aptitude and price!
I was much hoping to see a few bohemian types, beret at a jaunty angle, down by the water, palate in hand, visualising the shifting light with deft brush strokes: but alas the streets were surprisingly barren.
Further up the hill is the quirky museum dedicated to the life of musician and visual artist, Erik Satie, born in Honfleur in 1866.
As described in the brochures “Maison Satie is a vibrant experience revealing the man, his music and time”.
A weird, wonderful time it must have been, going by the exhibition!
Back to the harbour, and located in Honfleur’s oldest (abate unconsecrated) 14th century church, Saint Etienne, is the maritime museum, home to an eclectic collection of sea-faring memorabilia.
Model ships, paintings, etchings, maps, plans, you name it, they have it.
It’s an important tribute to Honfleur’s maritime history, and a wonderfully evocative, atmospheric setting.
Time to eat, and where better to people watch than by the harbour, with a bowl of mussels and a glass of rose?
You are spoilt for choice with restaurants clinging to the water like bloated mosquitoes, chequered tablecloths aplenty, spruiking waiters waiting to pounce like Zinedine Zidane on a right cross, laminated menus at the ready!
If you want tourist tucker alarm bells to ring, lamination will peel like Sunday mass!
Yet the setting is so compelling, the atmosphere vibrant with colour and movement, the sights and sounds just so enchanting that caution is nonchalantly thrown asunder, much to the lurking wait staffs delight.
Mussels are the ‘go to’ dish here, cooked in a white wine cream sauce, laced with garlic and served in huge bowls, more closely resembling pippies rather than the plump molluscs we are used to back home, but delicious just the same.
One of the joys of travel is to stop for a while and just watch and listen to the world around you. All those exotic tongues, intriguing smells, the hustle and bustle of village life right at your footstep.
Drink it in, step back for a moment or two, and appreciate.
Appreciation done, time for another museum, this time the Musee du Vieux Honfleur, just off the harbour in a magnificent medieval building, displaying the towns history in a wonderfully eclectic jumbled mess. Almost like a bric-a-brac store, but with items hundreds of years old, a fabulous historical mishmash of random thoughts and ideas.
Time to retire to the beautiful lawns of our B&B, for an hour or two’s relaxation before a final dinner back in town.
Dinner consisted of a charcuterie plate of bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, pate, and confit of pork, purchased at a deli, a local cider to compliment, feet dangling over the harbours stonewall, watching the carousel spin and the lights dim, simmering as it does, reflections bursting forth like a new years eve display out over the water, stone and slate moving with the light, yachts swaying to an imagined song.
The magic never retires, but we must, to our haven up the hill, as our time sadly draws to a close in this most spellbinding of villages.
Honfleur is a truly hypnotic village, magnificent in every way, and a wonderful base to explore the beauty of the Alabaster coast, with it’s spectacular white cliffs, to the north, the sombre and respectful D-Day beaches south, Joan of Arc’s farewell inland at Rouen, or any number of stupendously scenic spots inbetween.